Monkey 47 – Homemade Gin from the Black Forest

 

 

One partner hails from the publishing world, while the other previously worked in telecommunications. One chose to leave the fast track behind and embrace a slower way of life, while the other was on the lookout for a new challenge. In a word, their lives ran on parallel tracks and would have continued to do so – if the distillery business hadn’t brought them together.

In outward appearance, too, the two men couldn’t be more different. Christoph Keller, a man with quirky Grizzly Adams looks, published art books until, almost a decade ago, he decided to turn his back on that chapter of his life despite, or perhaps because of, his success. He bought a farm in the Black Forest in southwestern Germany and has lived there ever since with his wife and two children. Alexander Stein – entrepreneur, carefully groomed, but with rubber boots (from Le Chameau) – worked for Nokia in the US. After his contract expired, he decided that he was up for something completely different. “A tangible product, something you can actually hold in your own hands,” is what he had in mind, says Mr. Stein. His parents and grandparents had worked in the liquor trade and the business held a certain fascination for him. “I also have a good head for liquor, so that was a plus,” he wisecracks, striding across the fields in Münchhof. The countryside doesn’t appear to be his natural habitat, and the olive-green, knee-high rubber boots he wears despite the hot weather seem to function as a link between him and all this nature he finds himself amidst. It was his father who drew his attention to the article about distiller extraordinaire, Christoph Keller. Mr. Stein says he was immediately certain that “this is the man who can help me realize my project of creating an entirely hand-distilled gin.” And so the venture began, though Mr. Keller admits, “Neither of us imagined we’d be so successful.”

The farm houses two businesses, as the project initiator explains to us: The “Stählemühle” which produces a range of fruit brandies and “Monkey47,” named after the gin the master distillers have created. The estate includes the house in which Christoph Keller and his family live as well as a small dwelling that in olden days must have been home to a journeyman miller. Below the living quarters lies the heart of the farm: A copper still. The installation brings to mind a museum display, the kind that features a miniaturized version of an original object, because the still is quite small and holds only152 liters. Compared to the capacity of an industrial distillery, it’s a ridiculously small amount. Yet, this tiny space is where they distill spirits that harvest global acclaim. For its 2013 selection, the Stählemühle distillery achieved the best marks in the most prestigious international competition that a German distillery has ever attained. Since then it ranks in the lists of Destillata and Gault Millau as the second-best distillery worldwide.

When I do something, I go all out and make sure I do it best. Otherwise, anybody else could do it.

Christoph Keller was initiated in the art of distilling when he took over the farm. “He knew as much about it then as I did when I joined: Zilch!” Mr. Stein says grinning. However, in accordance with local legislation, the owner of a still is required to produce at least 300 liters of pure alcohol over two years, or forfeit the distillery license. Thus, the newly fledged farmer immediately started brewing after taking a crash course in distilling with the previous owner. The ambition he had displayed as an art book publisher did not diminish when he opted for a slower pace. Quite the contrary. “When I start something, I go all out and want to be the best there is; otherwise anybody could be doing this,” Mr. Keller says and runs his sun-tanned hand through his tousled beard. “I’ve always had a weakness for producing physical products. I enjoy making things that someone can actually hold in their hands. It never occurred to me that we might be in the process of creating a brand.”

Behind the house lies a lush herb garden: Lemony-scented bergamot, different kinds of mallows, glowing purple hyssop, sage, lavender. “And absinthe wormwood,” Mr. Stein says pointing to a greyish-green shrub, “nature’s most bitter herb.” Mr. Keller adds, “There at the back you see sweet cicely. Its anise scent and licorice flavor balance the bitterness of the absinth wormwood.” But, to produce their gin, the number of herbs growing in the garden is not nearly enough. “Forty-seven percent is the classic strength of gin,” he goes on to explain what the number in the name refers to. “So we decided the essence of 47 different plants should be used to make the gin.” Mr. Stein throws in, “Of these, 25 are significant in quantity and flavor, but all are essential to achieve the final product.” The plants in the garden are mainly used for distillates of aromatic herbs, which the men produce for top chefs. Mr. Stein says, “Our focus is on botanical know-how and the resources involved. We’re not aiming to produce as cheaply as possible. If we were in this business for profit, we wouldn’t have a ‘ripening storage’ underneath the garden we’re standing in.” Mr. Keller tells us that gin doesn’t actually need to be stored, but, “If you intend to achieve maximum quality, it’s best to keep it for a while. The result is an even more harmonious flavor. Mind you, it’s not like whiskey. You don’t have to store it for eight years; but a hundred or so days are good for the gin.”

The 47 botanicals, as the herbal ingredients are referred to, and their respective states – such as fresh lemon peel, only half-dried juniper berries – result in almost infinite possible combinations. This means the recipe is impossible to copy. “A newcomer to a trade knows he doesn’t know anything. That can be an advantage,” Stein says. Initially, both entrepreneurs poured over historical recipes and analyzed the separate components of gin. In total, they identified 120 and ordered these in large quantities. Subsequently, they spent day and night experimenting until the final product resembled their idea of what a gin should taste like. Mr. Keller says, “We wanted to produce a liquor that did not have a strong taste of alcohol. This depends entirely on the ingredients you choose. After distilling, you can’t make any further improvements.” The pepper mixture alone consists of several different botanicals; Mr. Stein mixes it at home before passing it on for production.

Becoming rich in five years or creating a perfect product are two diametrically opposed objectives.

Their production time for gin is restricted to six months a year because the long list of botanicals includes fresh citrus fruit. “A shame, but we don’t want to risk damaging our reputation by using artificial aromas out of greed,” Mr. Stein says and shrugs his shoulders. His business partner picks up a lemon and scrapes a fingernail over the peel to remove the wax coating and comments, “Even if it says ‘organic,’ there’s really just enough ‘organic’ in there to ensure it can wear the label. Getting really good products is hard work.” And Mr. Stein adds, “Becoming rich in five years or creating a perfect product are two diametrically opposed objectives.”

In Germany, there are approximately 25,000 operating stills, and each month nearly two hundred new gins are brought on the market. To stay at the top, it is essential to position a product clearly. “You have to have a system and you have to stick with it. Either we go by my rules, or we fail. You have to be consistent about things like that,” Mr. Stein comments. “Hendricks paved the way and reintroduced gin to the bars," Mr. Keller says and crosses his arms behind the bib of his overalls. Since launching their product, a couple of good gins have been put on the market. “We’re happy about those. We’re not so happy about the numerous bad ones. It’s starting to look like every graphic artist and advertiser has decided to start distilling gin, too, and that really bugs me. When all is said and done, it’s more about marketing and attractive packaging than content. And instead of seeing through the charade, the media celebrates everything uncritically.” His business partner picks up the dark bottle with its precious content and rotates it in his hand. “Of course, appearance is important, too. After all, why do people choose a certain bottle? Because it’s attractive.” To which Mr. Keller says, “But in the end you still have to deliver the goods. I’m really tempted to try ugly packaging so that the content becomes more important again.” Mr. Stein nods his head in agreement and says, “It has to work as a whole. And you always need a bit of luck, too.”

I’d really like to try ugly packaging so that the content becomes more important again.

They sit down at a table outside, and each lights a cigarette. In the distance, a rooster crows, birds are singing, trees rustle gently in a soft breeze. “Once, somebody actually asked where I’d found this guy. Whether he took part in a casting call or something?” Mr. Stein nods at Mr. Keller, who beams contentedly from behind his shaggy facial hair. In fact, he might say the same of his co-distiller – indeed, it seems the two may have gone into business together just so they could highlight their own individual look, a look that wouldn’t be so apparent had they started a company on their own. “We’re certainly very different, and we argue. But we also respect each other and like to bounce ideas off one another. Something else that connects us is how we both like to do everything alone,” Mr. Keller quips and looks up at the sun. Apparently calculating the time spent on our chat, he sighs, “I’ll be running late tonight.” He gets ups and trots off in stiff-gaited manner, making him look old beyond his years. “Christoph!” Mr. Stein calls after him, and he looks back. “The interview’s over. You can take that beard off!” They exchange a grin and chuckle. Each for himself.

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